Balkan range hits Black Sea at surreal post-Communist antiutopia
In 1808, a German geographer, August Zeune, erroneously referred to southeastern Europe as "The Balkans" because he thought the Balkan range ran all the way from the Black Sea to the Adriatic. It doesn't. It exists entirely in Bulgarian territory: from the border with Serbia to the Black Sea coast at Cape Emine (Emine being a pretty common female Turkish proper name). The Bulgarians themselves refer to the mountain as "The Balkans" only in a poetic context. In everyday speech, The Balkans is just Stara Planina, or Old Mountain.
The village next to Cape Emine is called Emona. There, the usual post-Communist dilapidation and sense of abandonment is excessive even in the antiutopia of today's Bulgaria. A jeep tagged United States Air Force is parked in front of the local pub. The man in the pub who has been drinking strong liquor since at least noon tells me the road is so bad because the military (decommissioned at least 15 years ago) didn't want asphalt as "too many cars would start coming over." As if the Turks would invade driving Ladas. An embattled NATO flag flops in the wind. Bulgaria is Russia's Trojan Horse in Europe. The publican's wife is reading Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy – in German. Die New-York-Trilogie.
In this neck of the woods Zeune's mistake seems to be living on.
Under Communism, Emona was a little known backwater somewhere off the highway connecting Sunny Beach, at that time a quiet resort frequented by East bloc holidaymakers, and Varna to the north. The Black Sea forms this country's eastern border, and as all other borders of what was then Warsaw Pact Bulgaria, it was heavily militarised. The main point of the military doctrine of Bulgaria at the time was for the Bulgarian Army to withstand an incursion by the West (at that time, the "West" meant Turkey, which is to the south) for a few hours until the Soviets came to rescue from Odessa. Plenty of "heritage" from those days can be seen at Emona. As you drive to the village, a still maintained but massively overgrown fence stands, with signs warning off the erstwhile "military zone." Theoretically, you cannot enter as the area is being protected by guards. When I was there I did make the wrong noises, but no one showed up.
Because it lacks a proper beach, Emona has somehow eschewed the fate of the overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Black Sea coast settlements in that it has not turned itself into a shamelessly tourist zone. Just a few people, mainly from Sofia, have bought properties there. The man in the pub tells me now they are the main opponents to the road being renovated. They don't want a stream of holidaymakers, he is telling me. They want exclusivity.
An embattled NATO flag flips in the wind in the centre of Emona
The chief attraction of any visit to Emona is the famous lighthouse, which stands on top of Cape Emine, about a mile along a dirt road east of the village. A sturdy 4WD can negotiate it when it's dry and there isn't any snow, but it is also a pleasant walk. You cannot enter the lighthouse (the military are very self-conscious about it), but you can walk straight up to it and look down the cliff.
The lighthouse, like many other Bulgarian Black Sea cost facilities of this sort, was constructed in the 1880s by a French company, Compagnie Des Phares De L'Empire Ottomane, which had won a concession by the sultan to modernise navigation along the empire's Black Sea coastline. The state of Bulgaria gained control of the area as late as 1909.
In recent years Emona has hosted an arts festival, usually taking place in August, by one of its churches, St. Nicholas.
In the absence of anything else to do, Emona will probably remain the backwater it has been for many centuries. However, it has one very distinct advantage over all other nearby seaside attractions: it is very isolated. A pile of books, especially if you visit off-season, will likely become the highlight of your stay. Don't forget Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy. A tiny little village 8,000 miles away from Brooklyn (both literally and metaphorically) may unleash your imagination in many unpredictable ways.
An unlikely read in the village pub
An USAF jeep in Emona
Abandoned military buildings
Cape Emine's lighthouse was constructed in the 19th Century
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.